Game Inventories (4): Resident Evil 4 and X-Com
Wednesday, 21 September 2016
The Attaché Case inventory in Resident Evil 4 (2005) feels like a logical next step from Diablo II’s grid inventory three years earlier. Both involve positioning multi-cell objects in a fixed size grid, with weapons varying in size. Resident Evil 4, however, takes the idea one step further, allowing the player to rotate the items, and providing a ‘swapping space’ to store items temporarily while the player fiddles with the layout. It’s an ingenious and absorbing design that most players loved, although a few complained about the way it broke them out of the world of the game (the aesthetic flaw I have called rupture).
Yet if we examine this game from the perspective of player practices then what we are dealing with is not a progression from Diablo II at all – for that particular game was never released in Japan, and is vanishingly unlikely to have been an influence upon the design of Resident Evil 4. Indeed, the player practices that condition the creation of this particular post-survival horror game are primarily those of the Resident Evil franchise itself, which represents an entirely parallel development of the grid inventory concept from largely different influences. I’ve warned previously about the danger of bringing in counter-factuals to examine the history of game design – but when it comes to this instance, we get an alternative history of a single design element because its actual history was different.
We do not, however, cast aside the influence of Dungeons & Dragons in this version of events, even though the game never had a serious following in Japan. Rather, it was once again Wizardry that took the design of the original tabletop RPG and brought its influence to Japan – firstly, as Henk Rogers’ Black Onyx (1984), which was Japan’s first computer RPG, and soon after as Dragon Quest (1986), and from there into the Japanese RPG lineage, a complete analysis of which would be a major project in itself. (Henk Rogers, incidentally, was a D&D player at the University of Hawaii, where he was studying business – and immediately saw how Wizardry’s adaptation of the tabletop RPG practices was a way to make money; he just had to bring it somewhere new…)
The original Resident Evil back in 1996 (Biohazard in Japan) has two key points of influence. From a technical standpoint, it is clearly inspired by Alone in the Dark (1992), which in turn was inspired by the hugely influential tabletop RPG Call of Cthulhu (1981), written by Sandy Peterson (who would go on to be a level designer for id Software, bringing Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into their games). From a player practice perspective, however, it does not seem that Capcom’s team was coming from Alone in the Dark at all, but rather from an obscure Japanese RPG entitled Sweet Home (1989), itself adapted from a Japanese horror movie with the same name. This is hardly a secret: Tokuro Fujiwara, who made Sweet Home, was one of the two key people responsible for directing Capcom’s first Resident Evil game, and it is relatively clear that Sweet Home provides the rough draft of Resident Evil’s inventory practices – including the idea of limiting space in the inventory, the use of save rooms to store items, and individual character items like the lockpick and lighter.
The player practices of the survival horror genre are centred around the inventory, and the limitations therein that Sweet Home pioneered. Having rendered the inventory as a grid for the first game, director Shinji Mikami went on in Resident Evil 2 (1998) to make some weapons take up two spaces in the inventory, adding to the difficult decisions that had to be made. While reviewers complained about the limitations of the inventory, and the surreal quality of the Item Box that shares items between all save rooms, when Capcom eventually removed these in their final survival horror game, Resident Evil Zero (2002), the inventory system unravelled completely. Players were forced to choose a room to layout all of their belongings, which was even more surreal than the Item Boxes!
Alas, the decision to give up on the player practices of the survival horror game had already been made by the time Resident Evil Zero shipped: Mikami-san had been ordered to make an action game, which is where Resident Evil 4 came from. On the foundations of their own inventory practices, the ‘perfect’ grid inventory of Resident Evil 4 was born. But having traded survival horror for action, the stop-and-start inventory ultimately had to go to make room for multiplayer, and the perfection of the grid inventory in Japan was ultimately a dead end.
UFO: Enemy Unknown AKA X-Com (1994)
The connection between the inventory in UFO: Enemy Unknown and that of Diablo that it inspired is readily apparent: here, for the first time anywhere in the world, is a grid inventory where the equipment items take up variable cells of the grid, creating interesting decisions when equipping character. This game, known as X-Com: UFO Defense in the United States where it enjoyed tremendous commercial success, was to found a hugely successful strategy franchise, yet its influence is nowhere more apparent than its provision of the multi-cell grid inventory practices to Diablo.
Just as the case of Resident Evil 4 depended upon a contiguous set of player practices from one linear sequence of games, so the influence that led to Diablo’s grid inventory came from a contiguous sequence of games, in this case those of the British programmer and game designer Julian Gollop. From the age of 14, Gollop was playing Dungeons & Dragons and the strategy boardgames of Avalon Hill that had inspired it. Unlike everyone else considered in this serial, Gollop was strongly influenced by the design of strategic boardgames, and began creating games on 8-bit home computers that adapted the player practices of these games.
Rebelstar Raiders (1984), pictured right, was one of Gollop’s first experiments with putting a strategy boardgame onto a computer, in this case the ZX Spectrum. With no AI at all, the game could only be played with two players, a limitation that was fixed with the sequels Rebelstar (1986) and Rebelstar II (1988). While the latter two games did allow for changes in weaponry, none of these titles featured an inventory system, which is not surprising since the strategy boardgame practices they had adapted never used an inventory concept either. This was the invention of D&D and the tabletop precursors that inspired it.
It is with Laser Squad (1988), pictured left, that Gollop begins to combine D&D style differential characters – and thus inventories – with the player practices he had developed across his Rebelstar games, the last of which had been released earlier in the same year. As the screenshot makes clear, each member of the player’s squad has a name and an inventory of weaponry, shown with small icons. The more equipment a squad member carries, the more rapidly they run out of action points, and thus tire. The player practices of X-Com descend directly from Laser Squad – indeed, it was originally conceived as Laser Squad II, and both games combine an RPG-like differentiation of characters with the practices of a strategy wargame.
The step up to the full grid inventory with multi-cell weapons in X-Com feels like a substantial progression from Laser Squad, and six years separate the two games (although the last edition of Laser Squad, for PC, wasn’t released until 1992). It seems likely that in the intervening period, Gollop encountered Dungeon Master, and hence the grid inventory. However, the effect of multi-cell items on the grid inventory concept results in a substantial shift in the player practices, as Diablo made clear. I speculate that the influence here might have come from Steve Jackson’s classic tabletop autoduellist wargame Car Wars (1981), for which allocating weaponry to the limited spaces available in the chassis was a major element. Since Gollop worked upon the 8-bit videogame for Games Workshop’s 1983 dodgy knock off, Battlecars, it seems likely he was exposed to Car Wars player practices. But perhaps, like Resident Evil’s parallel lineage of grid inventories, Gollop just hit upon the idea on his own as he continued to develop his own unique lineage of strategic videogames.
Next week, the final part: EverQuest and MUDs
Can you explain how Ultima 7's inventory system fits into your history?
Posted by: Paul Gestwicki | Wednesday, 21 September 2016 at 13:44
My understanding of Ultima VII: The Black Gate is that it uses the 'paper doll' approach, inherited from Dungeon Master covered in part one: http://blog.ihobo.com/2016/08/game-inventories-1.html
If it did something else that I am not aware of, I would welcome an account of it to incorporate into my investigations. I genuinely welcome pointers towards avenues that I might have overlooked! I try to be thorough, but I always need and welcome assistance in this sort of task.
Thanks for commenting,
Posted by: Chris | Friday, 23 September 2016 at 10:48
Your Gollop/boardgame influence is nearly right. It's closer than you think.
In Car Wars items in the vehicle took up variable amounts of space, but this was from an abstract pool of spaces. The arrangement of components was left largely to the player, which would often lead to very dodgy, physically implausible layouts so non-essential components would take damage before critical ones.
In Battlecars weaponry was placed inside fixed grids of spaces for weapons firing in a given direction.
Crucially, different weapons used different sized counters placed on the actual car sheet. Machine gun rounds were a 1x1 square, shells and dropped weapons were a 1x2 rectangle, and rockets and flame were 1x4, so you could play this kind of 'inventory Tetris' in choosing your loadout.
This cleverly meant you could have twice as many (less powerful) mg rounds as shells, and the physical shape of the rockets meant you couldn't t fit them into the very flexible 3x3 turret spaces.
I believe the 1x4 flame thrower ammo counter doubled up as a range check on the board. You took the flame from the inventory, stuck it on the side of your car on the board and if it touched the enemy car it was a hit.
Innovatively, the same squares that held the weapon markers were also used to mark off damage. In this way if you took enough damage before firing off your weapons your inventory would shrink as the spaces were taken up by damage counters. This contrasts with a game like Battletech, where armour markers and storage spaces are both modelled, but on different charts.
See these example Battlecars sheets:
Shows a car and a bike ready to start fighting. You can see the various arrangements of the different blue weapons counters in the weapon spaces. Oddly, the characters model ammo and health separately unlike the vehicles.
This shows both red damage and blue weapons counters of a game in progress. There is a 'flame' of 4x1 square next to the driver, and two 2x1 dropped weapons (spikes and smoke, I think) in the rear dispenser. Although both front weapons pods are heavily damaged, one still has some empty spaces remaining which could hold ammo.
I suspect Julian couldn't help but be influenced by Battlecars multiple inventory innovations as they're critical to the game.
Posted by: CdrJameson | Monday, 26 September 2016 at 21:39
Thanks so much for this clarification, Commander Jameson! I was a diehard Car Wars player, racking up hundreds, possibly thousands of hours with it, but alas I never once played Battlecars, so my appreciation of it was sketchier. It utterly delights me to think that this lineage can be traced back to Car Wars via Battlecars - you made my day!
Posted by: Chris | Wednesday, 28 September 2016 at 11:19
Regarding Ultima 7, it did use a paper-doll approach for items that were equipped, but not for items otherwise in the inventory: that was completely gridless. The player could open their backpack and rearrange items in a free manner, and items were shown at world scale. One could nest containers; among my friends at least, it was common practice to have bags designated for different spell components within the backpack.
One reason I brought it up is that I don't remember any other RPG besides an Ultima that combined the properties of being limited by weight, completely gridless, allow container nesting, and shown at world scale. I thought maybe you'd have some ideas of where this came from and, maybe more curiously, where it went.
Posted by: Paul Gestwicki | Wednesday, 28 September 2016 at 12:25
Had no idea that there was something this interesting lurking inside a late Ultima game! From your description, this sounds like an entirely unique inventory with no prior precedents. I will definitely have to investigate this further. Many thanks for bringing it to my attention!
As for where it went: one of the advantages of the grid inventory is that it is a highly manageable system. What you are describing sounds like an implementation nightmare (as too, by all accounts, was Resident Evil 4's system). The odds are that these player practices never propagated because it was too much work to maintain a system of this kind.
Once again, thanks for letting me know about this! I will be sure to investigate it, and see if I can dig anything up about it...
Posted by: Chris | Thursday, 29 September 2016 at 16:02
I've done a little digging about late Ultima series inventories, and I believe I have the answer as to why this particular inventory design has no descendants (other than later Ultima games)... Players hated it! While some, like you, were taken with the representational aspects of the design, the sense of verisimilitude to 'real bags', the majority of response was overwhelmingly negative, with players complaining about it being hard to find what they want, or being compelled into organising content that they found frustratingly fiddly to work with. So alas, this was a case where the weight of player preferences moved against you and killed the approach entirely.
Once again, many thanks for drawing my attention to this oddity! I found it very interesting to investigate this matter.
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | Friday, 30 September 2016 at 13:03